Date posted: 07/03/2024 3 min read

What’s new in Forensic Accounting?

By Christine Oliver CA: When working as an expert witness, it’s playing the game respectfully and professionally that counts.

In Brief

  • A cultural shift is taking place in the way we approach work as expert witnesses
  • While clients want to win, our fundamental duty is to be helpful to the Court
  • Keeping arguments objective and showing respect can deliver better outcomes

It’s recently dawned on me that we’ve seen a significant cultural shift in the forensic accounting community across my years of practice. 

Whether it’s exposure to concepts like the “growth mindset”, or perhaps the development of the Forensic Accounting Specialisation helping us see each other as members of the same profession, I’ve seen a general tone shift in the way Forensic Accountants treat each other – especially where acting for parties on opposite sides of a dispute.

More human

I first noticed how much the culture has changed when I was speaking to a Partner of a boutique firm. She reflected on the culture of the profession in earlier stages of her career, where some practitioners seemed to be focused only on winning and being right and contrasted that with her desire to get to know other practitioners as people, not just competitors. As she said that, I reflected on what I know of some of the people that might be described as my competitors:

  • one is looking forward to writing thriller novels after they retire 
  • one used to rap 
  • at least one loves Disney. 

Knowing these things doesn’t make it any more or less easy to critique their work when an engagement calls for that, but for me, these humanising aspects make it easier to keep my critique confined to the report (where it should be). 

At earlier stages of my career, I used to dread joint expert conferences, as some experts approached them as a gladiatorial battle – their objective being to metaphorically beat their opponent into submission. In most cases, I now find myself looking forward to them: many experts recognise their responsibility is to make sure we understand each other and assist the Court by clearly articulating where and why we disagree. I enjoy seeing how brilliant people think and reason – and joint conferences are a great opportunity to get to know our peers as people.

The 'infinite game' 

When I was discussing this change with Adam Giliberti CA, he referred to the concept of an ‘infinite game mindset’, covered by a number of authors, including Simon Sinek. An infinite game is one where the rules of the game can change at any time, and the objective is not to win– just to keep playing.
  
As Adam points out, it may seem like forensic accountants adopting an ‘infinite game’ mindset is abstract, nonsensical and detrimental to helping our clients. Clients are usually seeking to win: they want to be absolved of allegations made against them, win their day in Court and sometimes hope the forensic accountant will find the smoking gun.

The reality is, it’s not possible to win every time. If a matter does not settle, usually the judge has no choice but to find a reason to prefer one expert over another, and sometimes those reasons have nothing to do with the quality of the expert’s evidence.
Christine Oliver CA

You may be instructed to investigate a suspicion of fraud, but not find evidence despite warning signs being present. When it comes to a fulfilling career, staying in the game, and loving the game, is what really matters.

The Man in the Arena

As many of my current and former colleagues know, one of my favourite speeches is Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena, which emphasises the value of a person who chooses to do the uncomfortable and the difficult, who tries hard despite the potential for failure, over those who stand on the sidelines as critics.

For me, one of the most uncomfortable and difficult things we do in this profession is give evidence. I have an extraordinary amount of respect for those who choose to join me in that arena. For that reason, I seldom comment on judgments, and when I do, it’s never on what the judgment says about my peers. In fact, particularly in the case of first-instance judgments, pithy excerpts can create a misleading perception of the judge’s actual view of the expert or their evidence. Having seen dozens of experts give evidence and read the corresponding judgments, my takeaway is that one reads the judgment differently having had the benefit of hearing or seeing most of the evidence.
 
I want good forensic accountants to succeed. The reality is, in much of what we do, there needs to be someone on the other side of the table. My job is more interesting and more fun when that person is great at what they do. Quality competition can inspire us and forces us to grow. In litigation, I find the Court is best served when both experts not only provide good quality evidence but also treat each other with respect as professional equals, rather than as adversaries over whom to triumph.

I challenge you to find ways in 2024 that you can be involved in lifting our professional community and promote it in the best possible light.

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